“On or about December 1910, human character changed,” the English novelist Virginia Woolf once wrote. It’s no exaggeration to say that human character in India changed equally dramatically between 2014 and 2019 as the number of active smartphones in the country quadrupled from 100 million to 400 million.
Woolf, like many of her contemporaries in the early 20th century, was interested in how unprecedented economic and political forces such as industrialisation and mass democracy, as well as newfangled communication technologies such as the telegraph and telephone, were altering human relations.
The smartphone in India is also sparking earthshaking transformations in private and public life. To hundreds of millions of young and poor Indians, the device offers their first — and exhilaratingly simultaneous — experience of a camera, computer, television, music player, video game, e-reader and the internet. The smartphone compresses a timeline of technological advances that in the West took centuries — from the invention of letterpress printing to the advent of photography, radio, television, personal computer and modem — into just a few years.
A social and political revolution accompanied these technological leaps in the West: For instance, a rising middle class empowered by the printing press cracked open the exclusive world of a tiny literati.
India today is witnessing an even more drastic shift in class power. Anyone with a smartphone possesses the means to express an opinion and disseminate it far and wide, not only bypassing but also confronting the traditional elite of political representatives, technocrats and opinion makers in the media.
The experience offers few reasons to believe that faster communications will encourage greater democracy and freedom globally. Fake news, spread through WhatsApp and Facebook, has already fuelled lynch-mob murders in India. It now threatens to influence India’s ongoing general elections just as decisively as it did the Brazilian elections late last year.
Smartphone owners are constantly exposed to high volumes of information and disinformation — both of which have a misleadingly uniform digital texture. One obvious result is the weakening of analytic ability — the capacity to distinguish between the essential and the inessential, truth and untruth.
And when state education is poor, private education largely a con and competition fierce for even menial jobs, conditions are ripe not for revolution, as Marxists like to believe, but for a mass exodus into the smartphone’s screen.
Demagogic politicians adept at social media such as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro can only benefit when politics blends with entertainment, and campaign commercials as well as Bollywood videos flash forth from the same portable screen.
With potentially active citizens turned into passive consumers with diminished attention spans, buttons on voting machines tend to be pressed in the same depoliticised spirit that the “like” icon is clicked on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
The sociopathic behaviour enabled by smartphones is more unnerving if less visible. India, a largely conservative society, has rapidly become the third-largest market for online pornography, much of it extremely violent.
But the mounting addiction to fake news and images of sexual degradation are mere symptoms of a deeper and manifold crisis in India — one provoked by a premature and rapid shift from linear text to screens, from critical thinking to passive consumption, and from writing to image making.
The social contract in democracies depends on a broadly shared vision of reality among citizens. But what happens when systematically manufactured and manipulated images come to constitute a whole new alternate reality?
This question roils even the largely literate and secular societies of the West today. But it’s particularly urgent in partially literate and intensely religious societies where myth and magic already have a strong grip on human imagination, and where habits of rational thinking are skin-deep among many in even the country’s best-educated elite (such as the scientists at the prestigious Indian Science Congress who credit ancient Hindus with the invention of aircraft and genetic engineering).
Much of the history of the West records how near-hallucinatory images of religion and myth came to be challenged by writing, rational thought, historical consciousness and scientific knowledge. In this account, reason played the role of the iconoclast, shattering the irrational power of religion and myth with its impersonal analytic tools.
In India, this planned march of progress barely got going and, in fact, has been rapidly reversed in recent years. Manmade myth, transmitted through Facebook and WhatsApp, rather than objective reason has emerged as the true iconoclast; it is destroying the possibility of the rational dialogue that seemed fundamental for so long to democracy.
In a surreal irony, a feat of amazing scientific ingenuity — the smartphone — is ushering hundreds of millions of people into a new magico-mythical age.
Given this mass regression into fantasy, it seems almost immaterial who wins or loses India’s elections next month. For the smartphone is dramatically reconfiguring human character in India, and the long-term consequences for the country’s fragile democracy and civil society are incalculable.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”